Sunday, May 3, 2015

Myth: fact or fiction?

One of the things I've been thinking about a lot lately is whether there is room for a kind of belief that doesn't require evidence or certainty, but is still useful.

Obviously we believe many things without having absolute proof: for instance, I don't believe that I'm in the Matrix, although I can't be absolutely certain.  I just have no evidence that I am, and I don't bother wasting brain space on the possibility that it's true.  Let's say I'm 99% sure I'm not in the Matrix, but I act like I'm 100% sure because at that level of certainty I see no reason not to round off.

Other things, we believe because we have good proof, far from certainty, but still, it seems more likely than not.  For instance, plate tectonics.  I believe it because I learned it in school.  I know that the scientific community has good evidence that tectonic plates move, and I know some of what that evidence is.  However, I also know that the scientific community is sometimes wrong, and that perhaps 50 years from now we'll have a much better explanation for earthquakes and mountains and so on.  And I know that I may not be in a position to be completely sure my teacher wasn't oversimplifying the question to me.  But I have no reason to hedge every time I say "the continents drift" because there's no real risk to believing it, and because the evidence is still in favor of it.  Still, the degree of uncertainty I have suggests I should be open to listening to an argument that it isn't so.

But can it be right -- can it even be possible -- to say, the evidence is not in favor of a certain theorem, but I will hold it anyway?  To me, saying "the evidence isn't in favor of x" is the same as saying "I don't think x is true"!

However, I've done a little reading around and a lot of people talk about myth as being the thing that has a truth-value despite not having evidential proof.  For instance, this article says that a person can believe in evolution in a factual sense, but believe in young-earth creation in a religious sense, and these beliefs can be non-conflicting because deep down the person accepts the first belief as fact but the other only as myth.

I like this idea in theory, but my attempts to dig at it a bit are causing me to suspect it's really hokum.  Have you ever met anyone who believed in young-earth creationism but also believed in evolution?  Everyone I have ever known who believed in the biblical creation account also felt it was crucial to debunk evolution -- because they see, like I do, that the two explanations are contradictory.  The source of their belief is religious, but the end belief is a factual one.  And that raises the question, "Is it reasonable to expect only a religious level of proof for a factual level of certainty?"

What I mean is that religious people feel the standard of proof for religious belief should be lower than the proof you have for science.  Most religious people feel uncertain or doubtful sometimes, but instead of considering abandoning their religion -- as a scientist would if he felt doubtful about his hypothesis -- they decide instead to cling to it that much more firmly.  They say this is what you should do.  And then you should use it as the first principle of all your other beliefs and decisions, exactly as you would if you had proven it decisively with testable evidence.

From the article: "Factual beliefs seem to influence the way we act and think in pretty much all contexts, whereas religious beliefs have a more circumscribed scope. Even when engaged in pretend play, for example, children know that they shouldn't really bite the Play-Doh "cookie"; the factual belief that Play-Doh isn't food infiltrates imaginative play."

Most religious people I know would be very upset by the assumption that they should let any other sort of belief trump their religious beliefs when it comes to decisionmaking.  They might have slight proof for their beliefs, but they will use those beliefs as the core truth they build their lives on.

But perhaps that's specific of only certain religious groups.  Do conservative Catholics and fundamentalist Christians, for instance, treat their religious beliefs as factual while other, less radical, religious people treat theirs as conditional or mythical?

I did some research on progressive Catholics (by joining a Facebook group and asking them) and so far, it seems they also live by their religious beliefs.  They use birth control, for instance, not because they know deep down their faith shouldn't trump their scientific knowledge, but because they believe that God is okay with it -- that the rule against it is an addition of a tyrannical hierarchy that God did not intend.

And indeed, my own success has been spotty.  I try to pray to a God who I assume is there, even though I am not factually sure he is, and it doesn't seem to work. Trying to adopt a religion as a mythic structure, without believing in it factually, feels impossible.  I want to believe there is an afterlife, but by that I mean that I want to have some evidence there is one.  Imagining there is one doesn't help me go to sleep at night.

And yet, as a kid, that is exactly what I was able to do!  I talked to my toys, my pets, even my toes.  I knew they couldn't hear me, but that didn't bother me in the least.  I had an entire mythic structure for my life, complete with rules, cosmology, imaginary friends of all kinds.  I knew that nothing actually bad would happen if I let the toilet paper tear through the middle instead of along the perforations, or if I used more or less than exactly three squares, but that didn't stop me from feeling as if it would.  I knew nothing scary lived in the basement, but in my mind's eye I could see it retreating when I turned on the light.  I had an entire cast of characters to keep me company throughout the day: from Laura Ingalls Wilder, who was fascinated by all the modern contraptions around the house, to The Prince, whose main job was to be in love with me and feed me dried apricots.  I didn't need to believe in any of these to enjoy their company and the dash of poetry they gave my life.

(My childhood may or may not be typical.)

G. K. Chesterton says this is how the pagan religious worked; that it was all about poetic sensibilities and games, and everyone deep down knew it was a game, but that it would have been gauche to mention the gods weren't real.  I am not sure this is true.  If the proof that the child knows he's pretending is that (despite all his protestations of its truth) he won't eat the play-doh cookie, then pagans who are only pretending shouldn't ever stick to their religion when it costs them.  And yet they performed human sacrifices!  The Greeks were much more civilized than the Celts and Phoenecians, but even they sacrificed the fat and entrails from every animal and a splash of every cup of wine.  A rich person might do so in fun -- I can't see that a poor person ever would.  I think even the pagans performed their religions because they at least thought it was possible they would be in big trouble with the gods if they didn't.

But regardless of whether the pagans of times past did this, I can see how it might be beneficial.  A lot of the universe is difficult to understand; trimming it down to a manageable shape that you can easily imagine can help.  For instance, many Catholics can't understand the redemption, but they can understand Aslan's sacrifice for Edmund, so that's what they think about.  Many people who think hell doesn't include flames still imagine flames when they think of hell.  It's a shorthand -- a mental picture that makes thinking easier.

Meanwhile a materialist who does not believe in free will still acts as if he does.  He'll use words like "I decided to go to the park," and perhaps in his mind he'll have an image of what it means to decide, and he probably is not thinking of deterministic processes reaching a decision-point in his brain.  He probably just imagines he's deciding, because it's kind of impossible to think about the way we act without that sort of structure.

Many of the things we use to motivate ourselves work in this way.  I have promised myself not to eat lunch till I've finished this post, so I imagine that I "can't" eat lunch right now, even though of course I know I could.  I have imaginary conversations with people I know -- not because I think they can hear my thoughts when they're not around, but because sometimes it's easier to hash out ideas with Imaginary John or Imaginary Dad than to keep my thoughts more prosaic.  (Again, just me?)

And yet none of these things have the force or vibrancy of the myths I half-believed as a child.  Often I hear the argument, "Isn't the world barren and unexciting if you imagine it's all like a gigantic clock?  Shouldn't there be heroism and love and beauty out there?"  But what if there isn't?  Is there really any saving the idea that there is, to make our lives more beautiful and meaningful, if we don't actually believe there is?

But perhaps the universe is not to blame for any sense of meaninglessness I feel; while I don't feel depressed, I have noticed a flatness of affect lately which is perhaps a phase that will pass.  Certainly there were times when the vastness of the universe itself awed me.  Evolution does not seem unromantic to me; neither does the vastness of space, the delicate structures of the cell, the life cycle of the dung beetle.  It's all super awesome, in the literal sense -- I am awed by it.  I don't need to imagine little angels pushing the planets into their orbits to be awed.  Think of the weight of a planet, perpetually falling toward the sun, perpetually missing it.  The planet you are on, right now, is falling.  At the same time it is hurtling so fast that it misses.  It's spinning at tremendous speed; the stars would just be flashing by, except that the planet itself is so vast that you can't see the movement.

There is romance in that too.  I think in order to live, at least to live happily, we have to have that sort of view of something in the real world -- "real" being defined as the world which we, on a factual level, truly believe in.

That said, does myth help?  Is there any way in which myth can help me?  I still am not sure -- and my plan, if I can carve out the time, is to examine a few myths that I have come up with which I have sometimes found helpful.


Unknown said...

I enjoyed your post. I also enjoyed reading your comments on Little Catholic Bubble. You truly are a very sensible person.

To me, many people prefer to call things myths when all they are is lies and falsehoods. The story of Adam and Eve is a falsehood. There never was a time in our evolution when we disobeyed the command of a deity and brought a curse to our descendants. There was never a reason for us to have to be redeemed by a human sacrifice. These so called myths are nothing but useless and counterproductive misinformation.

Enbrethiliel said...


But can it be right -- can it even be possible -- to say, the evidence is not in favor of a certain theorem, but I will hold it anyway?

Um . . . I'd say that this is what I do all the time . . . except that it probably isn't. For one thing, I don't hang everything on evidence; so if the evidence were not in favour of something, that would not be a huge deal to me. I believe because I can't actually stop believing, for reasons I've already told you and really don't want to rub in.

A few months ago, I brought up astrology because it represents another sort of belief model. I find it credible because it fits into what I believed in my bones about the world long before I had to think seriously about it. When you and I were discussing it and you explained why you found it to be bunk, I felt as if you were sending me links to studies that debunked ghosts while the ghost in my house opened and closed another sliding door behind my back. (Yes, my old house really was haunted.) Applying it to Christianity, it would be as if I were a pagan who had accepted that human sacrifice is a necessary evil to placate the gods, then heard a missionary talk about God Himself becoming the Sacrifice in order to save us, and felt as if the sun had finally risen on reality. Human sacrifice was a frustrating riddle and Christianity was the answer.

Of course, many other people also start with what they believe in their bones, and for them, Christianity doesn't fit. I'm just bringing this up to answer your question of why I think it's possible to hold on to a belief even when evidence is against it. As for whether it's also right . . .

To me, saying "the evidence isn't in favor of x" is the same as saying "I don't think x is true"!

I think that one important point to remember is that circumstantial evidence doesn't speak for itself, but must be interpreted--and people will interpret it differently. Take the time when you were doing research on the historical case for the Gospels being ironclad testimony and were disappointed by their having been written as much as sixty years after the events in them happened. Rebekah commented to say that if you live in a mostly oral culture, waiting only sixty years to write something down is pretty good. She looked at the same evidence that you did and didn't at all find it wanting. And it wasn't because of wishful thinking on her part, but because of a background in literary history. Basically, she was saying that, to a literary historian, the evidence is in favour of the Gospels being true.

On the other hand, to someone with your teenage experiences, the evidence is not in favour of the Gospels being true. So now what?

PS -- To this day, I have an entire cast of imaginary friends, with elaborate histories that I retcon at whim! It's just nice to imagine other people being as interested in the things I like. These days, we're all about Eurovision and we perform covers of its greatest hits together. (Yes, they're all musicians, too.) And of course I really talk to these friends! I once scared a high school classmate for seeming to carry on a conversation with an empty seat. LOL! If I hadn't modified that habit somewhat, I'd have to buy a Bluetooth earpiece so that everyone would assume I was having a phone conversation.

Enbrethiliel said...


Given the main topic of the post, I should have mentioned this earlier . . . I have a friend who doesn't think Genesis is literally true (and who is pretty Marcionite in his approach to the New Testament), but who thinks that the story of Adam and Eve encapsulates an important truth about human nature. He thinks the same about Greek myths and faerie tales, and believes that we'd be wiser as adults if all these stories were taught to us as children.

Sheila said...

Secular Humanist, thanks for showing up. (I hope you're the only one who follows me over from LCB ... I find that community somewhat .... cough ... not my style.) What I mean to say in this entire post is not "are these myths literally true" but "is there some value to myths that are NOT literally true?" I mean, fiction isn't just a bunch of lies, people read it for a reason even though they know it didn't really happen. Is there a reason people of various cultures tell the story over and over of a curious woman who let evil into the world? (Adam and Eve, Pandora's Box, and there is a Grimm story as well about a soup tureen.) Perhaps the point is that we should curb our natural curiosity. Some stories are models of things we have trouble understanding in the abstract.

E, I think "a feeling in your bones" IS evidence. Now it's non-transferrable, because other people can't feel what you do, and only you can decide what weight you give to your own experience, but it does count for something. I don't think people like you or John or my own childhood self who FELT God was there and found that sufficient are being irrational or mistaken. If you see an alien, you KNOW there is an alien, but all I know is that you claimed you saw an alien. If you could show that everybody but me saw aliens, or you had a photo, or something like that, you'd have much more to give me to prove it to me -- but you have all you need to prove it to yourself.

Sixty years isn't too long a time to remember. You easily could. But sixty *days* is plenty of time if you want to make something up. So I think Rebekah and I are both right on that one.

Unknown said...

"is there some value to myths that are NOT literally true?"

Yes. There are lessons to be learned but they are not necessarily the right lesson. Adam and Eve taught us not to question authority, not to test ideas for ourselves, to obey God (which there is none so we obey the Bible, Church, etc.)

Unknown said...

"For one thing, I don't hang everything on evidence; so if the evidence were not in favour of something, that would not be a huge deal to me."

Maybe it should be more important than you make it out to be. It is useful to rely on evidence and not accept things at face value sometimes. Maybe even most times.

Enbrethiliel said...


I knew I'd regret trimming my first comment down to "essentials" and not including the story of my uni roommate, and Secular Humanist just proves me right! Let me make up for it now.

My roommate in uni was so mentally ill as a teenager that she had to be institutionalised for years. Then one day, she just woke up and knew that she wasn't crazy any longer. It was so unexpected and random that even her doctors didn't believe it. (No one knew better than they that it wasn't due to any therapy or treatment that they had been giving her.) So my roommate had to remain in the hospital for another year, until they ran out of reasons not to believe she was okay. When she told me the story, she admitted that she has always been as puzzled by what happened to her as they were: she had had no control over her descent into madness and she had no control over her return to sanity. Neither did anyone or anything in her life. She might have credited God . . . but she and her family were atheists. LOL! I almost told that story last time because it happens to describe perfectly my relationship with belief and unbelief, in which evidence isn't a factor--and you're welcome to decide for yourself, SH, which one is madness and which is insanity. ;-)

This is relevant to our present conversation because you seem to think that if I attach more importance to evidence, I'll change my mind about Christianity. But I could attach all the importance in the world to it and still not change my mind--as some mental patients could take every drug that their doctors prescribe and still not get better. It wasn't something external like evidence or rhetoric or witness that convinced me of the truth of Christianity, and that's why nothing external can change my mind back. The only difference between the time I didn't believe and the present time is that I sneezed one afternoon and suddenly had faith. The best you can hope for is that I sneeze another afternoon and lose it. ;-)

Unknown said...

" seem to think that if I attach more importance to evidence, I'll change my mind about Christianity."

E, actually, Christianity is supported by a lot of evidence. It is just evidence that I find to be based on questionable sources. The Gospel is the strongest evidence. If you trust that the evangelists were making factual representations of what Jesus said and did and what happened to him, you could consider that evidence to be sufficient to be a Christian. It is better to say that you choose to be Christian because you accept the available evidence than to say you don't need any evidence. That is just foolishness.

Enbrethiliel said...


"Better"? Who are you, the faith police? ;-)

As I hoped you could tell from the story of my old friend, I'm perfectly okay with "foolishness"--though if we're going that route, I'd prefer the words "madness" or "insanity." Besides, I'm not alone; there's at least one other case of someone who got his faith in a similar manner: a historical Catholic who, as a non-believer, mockingly prayed the Memorare nine times to prove that nothing would happen . . . and after the ninth time, suddenly just believed. (I can't remember his name, but I'll try to look it up if you're really interested.) Again, no evidence. Just a "sneeze." Or as some might call it, a miracle. (Just wondering: do you accept miracles as evidence?)

To clarify, I happen to think that evidence is nice. I certainly don't disparage it. If I ever think that I need to present evidence to others, I'll do the research and prepare a spiel. But I literally just got faith one day after years of not believing, and the only evidence I needed was the miracle of my own conversion.

Sheila said...

Makes sense to me, actually. I read the other day that the sci-fi author John C. Wright did the same thing. (I looked him up because his sci-fi seemed so Catholic -- ha!) He prayed, as an experiment, saying "I don't believe that you're real, but if you are, make me believe" and then he did. I wonder if anyone might ever do a study on that sort of experience and see if there are any commonalities in the personalities of the people who have them, the scenarios in which their sudden conversions happen, etc.

I know if I were a doctor and a patient's mental illness were cured overnight, I'd be studying the heck out of it to see if it could be duplicated. The same question might be asked of your conversion.

(I can safely say it won't ever happen to me -- because it already HAS, when I "converted" from hating Regnum Christi to thinking I had a vocation to it. And after an experience like that being so dead wrong, I'd never trust another.)

Enbrethiliel said...


I found him! Alphonse Ratisbonne agreed to wear a Miraculous Medal and to pray the Memorare daily, and he was converted. I completely forgot, however, that a vision of Mary was involved. So it's not quite like what happened with me or with my friend. She and I just snapped out of it.

I've read a bit of John C. Wright's blog and had known he used to be an atheist, but not the details of his conversion. How interesting! You may be right that this sort of thing happens most often to a certain personality type: indeed, that there are different types of conversions depending on personality types.

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